Right now I’m a little obsessed with Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen. I suppose its stereotypical for a 50 year old to be repeatedly listening to music from the 1970s but maybe I should explain a little more. I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen perform a couple of times back in the 1980s. I like his music but I am not a compulsive fan.
Music is an important part of my life. I grew up in a very musical family where learning an instrument was painfully assumed. After my sweated Grade 1 Piano Theory success I was allowed to forego the formal stuff and find my own way.
I was expected to, and gladly did, perform in front of an audience from an early age and always appreciated live music as entertainment. I taught myself to play the guitar and bothered neighbours when I went electric. My gigging started and ended in the 1980s with Celestial Visions in the North East and then Dog Pie in Birmingham in the 1980s (don’t bother trying to look them up). There was a brief and bizarre cameo when I briefly appeared playing lead guitar on stage in Portugal to a Dire Straits cover which thankfully predates YouTube also. Since then it’s been a solitary pastime.
I have been left with a very eclectic taste in music and I’ll pretty much listen to anything. I’ve been to opera and classical concerts, heavy metal gigs in front of the Marshall stacks, and to some folk performances in pubs and tents. For me it’s the performance which is the key and within the performance there are two elusive prizes. They’ve never happened for me but they must give the most enormous adrenaline rush to artists.
The first is the “all eyes are on me” moment. The finest example of this is Freddie Mercury doing a nonsense singalong, dressed in spandex at the front of a Wembley stage while the rest of Queen takes a breather. The truly great performers can lift and drop a crowd with a movement of their hand. They don’t need the XFactor heavy edit or back story to achieve it. I saw Whitney Houston at a quite intimate concert a few years ago and when she broke into the big refrain of “I Will Always Love You” it knocked the audience backwards. It’s the big guitar solo from Angus Young in “Let There Be a Rock”, Gary Moore holding the note until the audience reaches crescendo in “Parisienne Walkways”, the opening bars of Etta James’ “At Last” and pretty much all of “Over The Rainbow” by Eva Cassidy. It isn’t any old guitar solo or high note – it’s the theatre of it all. Even Puccini knew the power of it as audiences still hang on to their seats willing the Bb in “Un Bel Di Vedremo” from Madame Butterfly and the climactic B in “Nessun Dorma”. You know you are potentially coming to one of the moments when a couple of chords of a song is greeted by rapturous applause or the mosh pit begins to boil. I can only imagine what it feels like to see those moments through the eyes of the performer.
The second live phenomenon is the singalong. I don’t mean the general moments when everyone knows (most of) the words to a band’s hit single. I mean the more intimate moments when the true fan’s favourite is played and the crowd are there with them. This isn’t top-of-the-voice screeching but rather every little phrase is replicated in a slightly hushed theatre. A few years ago MTV repeatedly played a video of a young man (French I believe) playing a song while sitting at the piano. A huge crowd of mainly teenage girls sang along to almost all of it with lighters in the air. I’ve never seen it since and I wouldn’t recognise the song if I heard it but it looked to be a phenomenal moment. I’ve been to a couple of smaller concerts where the whole audience seems to know the words. We were in a bar where a guitarist was playing songs and out of nowhere he suddenly started a song which I’d never heard but his audience gently sang along with him. Absolutely everyone in the bar was focused on him for five minutes… It was like there was static electricity around the place.
It doesn’t need to be a superstar. While generally it will take a legend to achieve the “all eyes are on me”, the singalong is most definitely about shared experience. I’ve seen someone pick up a guitar and strum the opening bars of “Wonderwall” and completely have a large room joining in. I do realise that my personal response to these situations has a lot to do with the mood I am in, where I am emotionally. I’ll happily join in but it takes something very special to get the whole audience on the same page. Robin Williams could have had his whole set at Knebworth sung by the audience when he was in his pomp. The classic method is to hold the microphone out to the audience and just let them take over for a verse while the band plays along in a lightly muted style. Although it would be good to hear a singalong from the stage the point of it is that we are the band…it’s our moment as much as the artist’s.
And so that brings me back to the wonderful Thunder Road. I watched the amazing documentary Springsteen and I which gave fans around the world a platform to tell the story of their ‘relationship’ with Bruce’s music. It is a fabulous piece of film making which even non-fans will enjoy. It is clear that his subject matter and the stance of his lyrics strikes a chord as much as the melodies themselves. He is more than a musician for them. Thunder Road is a rites of passage song that tells the story of Mary and her boyfriend contemplating breaking out of small town America to find their future. It has beautifully poetic lyrics, great phrasing and a complex climactic structure. I really wish that I knew the song as well as I do now when I saw Bruce perform in the 1980s – we could have had our singalong moment – he’ll never know what we’ve missed.